Partisan think-tanks: evidence-informed advice or political support?
This article was published in partnership with INGSA as part of the INGSA-LAC 2020/21 Science Advice Essay Competition.
The Fundación Pensar in Argentina operates as a ‘powerhouse of ideas’ for the centre-right political party Propuesta Republicana (PRO) to design plans for public policy. This column explains the contribution that the partisan think-tank’s expertise has made to the party’s political agenda, particularly the value it added to PRO’s electoral ambitions. These experiences provide insights into the complex relationship between research and policy as expert knowledge interacts with political ideology, objectives, and actions.
Investigating the relationships between partisan think-tanks and political parties is key to understanding links between the spheres of knowledge and politics. In 2010, the Propuesta Republicana (PRO) of Argentina relaunched the Pensar Foundation, the function of which would be to design plans to be implemented in government if the party achieved victory in the 2011 presidential elections. Incrementally, Pensar inserted itself into PRO's structure, and it became a key piece of the party's national strategy.
Knowledge, politics, and partisan think-tanks
Expert knowledge can be thought of as fulfilling three functions in relation to politics:
· An instrumental function: constituting the expert individuals and organizations to which decision-makers turn to analyze public policy problems, and to establish criteria and procedures for their resolution.
· A symbolic function: providing legitimation of speeches and courses of action, to the extent that their authority is claimed independently of political projects.
· A networking function: operating as carriers of knowledge to networks of contacts that influence public policies.
Think-tanks are one of the spaces where expert knowledge is developed. Two functions make up their distinctive character: generation and dissemination of information and ideas about public policies; and use of that output to influence public debates and decisions.
The diversity of national and regional traditions indicates that these functions can be performed regardless of whether or not think-tanks have affinity with, or adhere to, other participants in the political community.
The experience of Pensar as PRO’s think-tank and its ability to inform decision-making with evidence can be analyzed with a framework that integrates four dimensions: the party system; the think-tank’s functions; its strategic autonomy; and its sustainability.
Origins in a fragmented party system, consolidation in a context of polarization
Faced with the fragmentation of the party system and the dispersion of candidates in Argentina’s 2003 elections, a group of people from political and intellectual backgrounds diagnosed that ideas linked to the market, limited government, and the private sector as the driving force for growth were not represented. In 2005, that group became the Pensar Foundation.
Pensar’s consolidation as a partisan organization took place as PRO grew as a national opposition force in a context of strong political polarization. But the ideological and programmatic distance between the main forces threatened the inclusion of evidence as criteria for the elaboration of public policies: the distribution of forces in Congress (with PRO as the legislative opposition) conditioned Pensar’s capacity to influence the parliamentary debate, thus making the elaboration of government plans a priority.
The origins of Pensar suggest that the creation of an internal think-tank – although related to the features of the party system, the dynamics of political competition, and the features of the political knowledge regime – depends on characteristics of the associated party, and the value it places on expert knowledge vis-à-vis its political goals.
Functions: support, network, legitimation, and knowledge management
Pensar’s plans would generate certainty about PRO’s actions in the event that it took office as a new government. The joint work between party leaders, staff in the administration, and the Foundation’s technical teams around the plans gave Pensar an awareness of the deadlines and entry points for advice and understanding of party programs and priorities, tailoring the advice to real needs.
The Foundation also supported the political-territorial building and expansion of PRO as a national force, promoting the formation of a national network of leaders, and enabling PRO to draw on technical profiles that legitimized its proposals. In the symbolic field too, Pensar highlighted the importance of evidence as an input for decision-making, as opposed to the intuition of ‘old politics’.
But to what extent did Pensar produce knowledge applied to public policies, a distinctive aspect of think-tanks? Although it carries a prominent space in its presentation, the systematic production of knowledge through research is one of the least developed functions of partisan think-tanks. Instead, these think-tanks usually operate as brokers.
Thus, Pensar acted more as a knowledge manager: it generated evidence by commissioning studies from third parties, discussed it with stakeholders, and was nourished by that work to develop government plans and generate discursive content.
Pensar’s experience shows that the technical knowledge housed in a partisan think-tank fulfills the three functions in politics:
· It generates outputs to be applied in practice (the instrumental function), such as the government plans drawn up by Pensar.
· It legitimizes the discourse and action of the party (the symbolic function), strengthening its profile and technocratic credentials.
· It expands the political-institutional linkages of the party (the network function).
Balance between autonomy and party discipline
Among the factors that explain the successful integration of Pensar and PRO, as well as external recognition (by the media and other stakeholders), the following stand out:
· The legitimacy emanated from the explicit support and direct access to the party leader.
· The clear division drawn between the party as a political space and the Foundation as a technical space, thus giving it a specific function.
· A strategic reading of politics and its growing politicization, which allowed Pensar to contribute to achieving electoral objectives.
· The development of a rigorous ‘party discipline’, regulating Pensar’s public profile according to party political needs.
· Compliance with politics implied the absence of Pensar’s own agenda: its agenda was reactive, at the request of the party, and in pursuit of debates on the national agenda.
In this way, to gain acceptance as PRO’s think-tank, Pensar managed the balance between two attributes: that of being an actor (with autonomy) and an agent (an organizational resource). Pensar's experience suggests that in partisan think-tanks, the management of this balance responds to political objectives and conjunctures, thus being in constant motion.
Pensar’s evolution indicates that the integration of the think-tank into the party’s structure requires a process of mutual adaptation, and the think-tank striking a balance between being an autonomous actor and an agent (an organizational resource to the party), but also aware that political goals prevail over technical ones.
The elections and the constitutive uncertainty of the partisan think-tank
As the electoral milestone approached, and PRO support grew in the polls, discussion of public policies and work around government plans were relegated in favor of the construction of candidacies and territorial activism. In 2015, PRO won a close presidential race (51% to 49%), retained the City of Buenos Aires (Argentina’s capital), sprung a surprise in the Province of Buenos Aires (the largest district in the country), and achieved numerous victories at the municipal level.
PRO was challenged to manage an abrupt growth in activities. Pensar emerged as one of the main sources of human resources, placing its members at all levels of the national and sub-national government structure. Although the institution was left leaderless and without active members, expert knowledge came to occupy a central place in the new administration.
Pensar’s experience confirms the constitutive uncertainty that underpins any partisan think-tank, as its evolution (and that of its members) depends largely on the performance of the party in elections.
Leandro Echt is a political scientist with over 13 years of experience in the international development and public policy fields, supporting the use of evidence in decision-making. He is Associate of Purpose & Ideas, INASP, On Think-tanks, and chair of the facilitators' network International Support Group.